This time it’s personal: in this week’s post I share my thoughts about my life-long friend Barry, who has been honing his skills at the practice of reversibility on the page. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Master Palindromist.
For over a decade now, I’ve become accustomed to receiving an email from time to time containing a new palindrome composed as a response to an event. For example, about two months ago, Barry sent me a new work written to commemorate the centennial of the nineteenth amendment. Just as I rest easily back into a routine and drab existence in a forward-oriented world, a new palindrome will arrive to tease my attention into both directions.
A palindrome, as you probably already know is a word, phrase, sentence, or number that reads the same backward or forward. (This includes musical phrases, too, by the way—many composers, including Haydn and Bartok, created palindromic pieces.) Familiar examples of palindromic sentences include “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama,” “Step on no pets,” and the exiled Napoleon saying “Able was I ere I saw Elba.”
The term was introduced into English in the 17th century by Ben Jonson, but the practice goes back to classical poetry in both Greek and Latin. Its etymology comes from the Greek palin, “again” plus drome, “to run”—hence “to run both ways.” It’ a technique with a long, if narrowly applied, history. Barry Duncan has sought to change that.
The trailer for an upcoming documentary by Michael Rossi, The Master Palindromist
Let me just make an aside for a moment before discussing the range of Duncan’s palindromes. When you encounter his work for the first time, you may be puzzled. A while back, when he was being interviewed for an article in The Believer, appearing on NPR’s Here and Now, and being filmed for a forthcoming documentary, he edited a selection of his work with explanatory notes, entitled I Am the One Making Reversible Art. (It reminds me of Dante’s Vita Nuova, a collection of early lyrics arranged to illustrate the artistic development of the poet, to demonstrate the variety of his inspiration and skills, combining poetry and prose to illustrate his philosophy of composition.) It all may seem like a puzzling stunt, but as you follow his explanations and constructions, you begin to sense the warmth along with the ingenuity.
I’ll share one example. This back-and-forth bard loves birthdays! Here he is on a poem dedicated to twin friends:
I know a pair of musical female twins, living in California and New York, who turned 33 years old in 2014. 33 is a palindrome. The problem: Should I make 33 the middle? Should I make it the beginning and the end? Should I make it the beginning, the middle, and the end? The solution: All of the above.
THREE FOR TWO
Sing. Is a 33 a sign? Is.
33: 2 still, as I ties I. We lit CA to NY, no? Tactile. Wise. It is all. It's 2: 33.
Most of the elements of poetry—patterns, puns, tropes, themes--are right there in the fabric of this piece. There are twin digits and twin people reflecting each other. There’s the play on “sing” and “sign.” After all, poetry is made of signs on the page (in this case digits as well as alphabet symbols) that we hear in our mind’s ear or can recite, the poem’s unheard melody singing for us as we read the notation. And there’s that sense of flux and permanence, a kind of rocking between time’s onward rush and the momentary stay against change marked by a birthday observance and the marks on a page. Another year has come around.
Duncan composing palindromes by request at art gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn
Although I get it when some people new to the form may consider it merely tricky, I think back to the story John Ciardi (once a New Jersey poet laureate and a great translator of The Divine Comedy) told about Robert Frost. The poet was giving a reading and lecturing about “how he used slant rhyme, hendecasyllables, and other things like that. One lady, an appreciator of the arts, greatly agitated, stood up and said, ‘Surely Mr. Frost, when you write your bee-youu-teee-ful poems, you don't think of these technical tricks,’ with the last two words, ‘technical tricks,’ spat out distastefully. Frost stood back, thought a moment, and then in the microphone said, ‘I revel in 'em!!’” Following the strictures of the rules is what liberates some poets. (Just listen to Barry explain sometime that you should never have a double letter in the middle—it’s a subtle cheat unworthy of a maven.) The technical constraints test your abilities and release the energy that will transcend time.
Every one of Barry’s palindromes seems to be an exploration of identity. Who IS this really, this person connected with some choice from thirty six symbols (numerals and letters)? And the poems convey a sense of time as filled with unrepeatable individual incidents, as well as cyclical returns of the same markers. Those markers include natural seasons and man-made holidays, anniversaries, and historical milestones. Searching for the pattern of symmetry in the hurly-burly of events and the signs that represent them becomes an act of liberating imagination. It’s essentially metaphorical—making connections that are only partly rational, and are pleasing aesthetically. You can see it in his RNP—Reversible News Project—a series of one-line palindromes inspired by the latest headlines. You can see it in his Santa Claus poems, a series of short lyrics from the point of view of the legendary saint that wittily capture the stresses of the season, but also have a certain wistful quality that humanizes the guy in the red suit.
Duncan composing palindrome on a gallery wall in Bushwick
And you can see it in the following poem that Barry created in what we call “real time,” that is to say under the gun, in an art gallery featuring his work, standing on a scaffold chalking the letters on the wall. It takes the preoccupation with advancing forward, and coming around again to cosmic proportions.
BY WHICH WE MEASURE AND AROUND WHICH WE TURN
Sun is till a nite.
A lost one. My!
Be no gem, it's a dash.
A.M., sir. Plan, if animates all in us: hope. (El sol.) Set in fog, no shone. Loss is A.M. Pen I: New am I. Day a rare rose, no?
Even as I lie, lose, let a day burn on. Us. Soil, eh? In.
A “two ball,” it's tops 'til noon. Lit spot still. A bow. Tan: I, Helios.
Sun. On, ruby! A date. (Le soleil.)
Is an eve. One sore Ra, ray a dim awe. Nine P.M., as is. (Solen.) Oh, song of nites!
Lo. Sleep. Oh.
Sun ill? A set. Am in a final prism.
Ah, sad: as time gone by.
Me? Not so late?
Set. In all.
It's in us.
Duncan’s notes for the palindrome
The poem keeps spinning around its topic like our planet around its great star, considering the sun, and the rhythms of our days, from different angles (including, of course, the different names that designate the celestial object.) In a lovely conclusion, the melancholy contemplation of mortality is followed by the consolation of our shared humanity, and the light of the universe is found within as well as “up there.” Running both ways, you see.
Let’s end with the personal, though. What follows is Barry Duncan’s palindrome commemorating Malala Yousafzai’s brave facing down of an assassination attempt. Before I let the master take up the story, let me say I find it typical that the poem is built around the attraction of her name. In fact, the crucial middle of the palindrome is that name, so that the rest of the work radiates from her. And what a mellifluous, rhythmic, assonant name it is, ululating proud defiance and murmuring hope. The victory celebrated in the words “I won,” is not simply survival or endurance—it’s a pride in her ability to keep pushing the words forward (against the push of the reactionaries in the other direction). Here’s Duncan’s introduction and the palindrome itself.
Malala Yousafzai was shot by a Taliban gunman on October 9, 2012. Like everyone else in the world, I was heartsick and anxious. After she was transferred to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, I felt that I needed to write something about her.
I had recently spoken to my friend Paul Howe, a high school English teacher, and he told me that he was teaching Dr. King's “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. That gave me my title. Yes, I understand that it is not the same Birmingham. Yes, I realize that they are pronounced differently.
I began work on this palindrome on Friday night, October 26th, just before going to bed, and completed it on Saturday afternoon, October 27th, just before dinner.
One thing that I find so appealing about the shape of this palindrome is that the first line is almost completely mirrored in the fifth (but is its opposite), the second line in the fourth (and, again, is its opposite), and the middle line is a true middle and is nearly a palindrome in itself, acting as both the anchor for the piece and the engine of reversal.
It is the only palindrome I have ever written – indeed, it is the only palindrome I have ever seen – that is truly the equal of its subject. I am unlikely to get so close to perfection again.
PALINDROME FROM A BIRMINGHAM HOSPITAL
Now one – vile, lame – fired.
No! Wrong is astir.
A fate Malala met afar?
It's a sign, or wonder.
I, female, live – no, won.
To hear Barry Duncan’s interview with Robin Young for Here and Now on WBUR public radio, Boston click here.
The Charlie Parker centennial sent me to my bookshelf to check out some jazz and blues poetry this week. I spent one summer years ago reading as many examples of such poems researching for an NEA grant, and ever since I’ve been adding to the collection. Because there are so many worthy examples, I thought I’d narrow the field to poems paying tribute to specific figures in jazz and the blues.
When Ma Rainey
Comes to town,
Folks from anyplace
From Cape Girardeau,
Flocks in to hear
Ma do her stuff;
Comes flivverin' in,
Or ridin' mules,
Or packed in trains,
Picknickin' fools. . . .
That's what it's like,
Fo' miles on down,
To New Orleans delta
An' Mobile town,
When Ma hits
Dey comes to hear Ma Rainey from de little river settlements,
From blackbottorn cornrows and from lumber camps;
Dey stumble in de hall, jes a-laughin' an' a-cacklin',
Cheerin' lak roarin' water, lak wind in river swamps.
An' some jokers keeps deir laughs a-goin' in de crowded aisles,
An' some folks sits dere waitin' wid deir aches an' miseries,
Till Ma comes out before dem, a-smilin' gold-toofed smiles
An' Long Boy ripples minors on de black an' yellow keys.
O Ma Rainey,
Sing yo' song;
Now you's back
Whah you belong,
Git way inside us,
Keep us strong. . . .
O Ma Rainey,
Li'l an' low;
Sing us 'bout de hard luck
Roun' our do';
Sing us 'bout de lonesome road
We mus' go. . . .
I talked to a fellow, an' the fellow say,
"She jes' catch hold of us, somekindaway.
She sang Backwater Blues one day:
'lt rained fo' days an' de skies was dark as night,
Trouble taken place in de lowlands at night.
'Thundered an' lightened an' the storm begin to roll
Thousan's of people ain't got no place to go.
'Den I went an' stood upon some high ol' lonesome hill,
An' looked down on the place where I used to live.'
An' den de folks, dey natchally bowed dey heads an' cried,
Bowed dey heavy heads, shet dey moufs up tight an' cried,
An' Ma lef' de stage, an' followed some de folks outside."
Dere wasn't much more de fellow say:
She jes' gits hold of us dataway.
Sterling Brown reads “Ma Rainey”
Brown was a scholar of African American Southern folklore at Howard University, NYU, and Yale, who, along with anthropologist and fiction writer Zora Neale Hurston, was fascinated with transcribing dialect. His rhymes and rhythms are meant to evoke the sound of tent show and black vaudeville style of the blues of which Gertrude Rainey, called “The Mother of the Blues,” was an exemplar. The second stanza sketches in the different members that make up the audience, while the third allows the poet to apostrophize Ma on the audience’s behalf, fervently telling her how they feel. The fourth stanza embeds lyrics from a traditional blues of the period, “Backwater Blues.” Below we hear a typical Ma Rainey performance on Paramount records. Because she never recorded “Backwater,” the next clip contains a version of it by Bessie Smith, “The Empress of the Blues,” and leads us into our next poem.
Ma Rainey sings “Oh Papa Blues”
Bessie Smith sings “Backwater Blues”
Homage to the Empress of the Blues
Because there was a man somewhere in a candystripe silk shirt
facile and dangerous as a jaguar and because a woman moaned
for him in sixty-watt gloom and mourned him Faithless Love
Twotiming Love Oh Love Oh Careless Aggravating Love,
She came out on stage in yards of pearls, emerging like
a favorite scenic view, flashed her golden smile and sang
Because grey laths began somewhere to show from underneath
torn hurdygurdy lithographs of dollfaced in heaven;
and because there were those who feared alarming fists of snow
on the door and those who feared the riot squad of statistics,
She came out on stage in ostrich feathers, beaded satin,
and shone that smile on us and sang.
Robert Hayden reads “Homage to the Empress of the Blues”
Robert Hayden’s poetry ranges from a miniature epic about slavery “The Middle Passage,” to small scale lyrics of touching intimacy like “Those Winter Sundays,” one of the best poems written about the tenderness of a father toward his child. Here Hayden celebrates the power of Bessie Smith’s voice to galvanize the lives of listeners whose attention is threatened by the dull intrusion of the “gray lath” showing through the plaster wall and fading glamorous lithograph.
Borrowing imagery from blues lyrics, and coining surrealistic metaphors of his own, Hayden captures the thrill of the empress’ revitalization of everyday life.
The Day Lady Died
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
Frank O’Hara reads “The Day Lady Died”:
This famous threnody for one of the greatest of jazz vocalists comes from O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, a collection so called because each lyric poem was composed in Times Square during his lunch hour break from his other vocation, curator at the Museum of Modern Art. O’Hara seems to sidle up to his elegy from an oblique angle, cataloguing the quotidian details of his day in NYC purchasing books and alcohol and cigarettes, pursuing his artistic preoccupations with poetry and paintings. As the poem’s conclusion approaches, we discover he has been avoiding thinking of the great loss of the jazz artist, and he leaves us with the tableau of the poet, in his memory, transfixed by the accompanist and the great lady softly singing.
The title plays on Billie’s nickname, “Lady Day,” bestowed upon her by the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young. The recording of Holiday below comes from a broadcast in the later part of her career from a Boston jazz club, where she is accompanied by Mal Waldron. Her voice really does seem to whisper, murmur, and throb.
Billie Holiday sings “Willow Weep for Me”
For Sidney Bechet
That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,
Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares—
Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced
Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.
On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,
And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.
English poet Philip Larkin was a “moldy fig,” that is, one of those fans and critics who resisted modern jazz (bebop and beyond) and championed the players of the music’s first decades. He’ll get no argument from me about the preeminence of Sidney Bechet, a native of New Orleans who was one of the first great improvisors, and whose piercing tone on the soprano sax, with its generous vibrato, is described in the opening lines. The classic form, loose iambic pentameter in rhymed tercets, seems to honor the traditionalism of The Crescent City. But the poet’s preference is to reject the comfy nostalgia that makes the town a picturesque and quaint locale of European architecture and seedy Storyville thrills. He ends up supporting Bechet’s strength and originality against cliché and against the “long-hairs” (hipster term for classical musicians).
I Remember Clifford
Wakening in a small room,
the walls high and blue, one high window
through which the morning enters,
I turn to the table beside me painted a think white. There instead
of a clock is a tumbler of water,
clear and cold, that wasn't there
last night. Someone quietly entered, and now I see the white door
slightly ajar and around three sides
the light on fire. I remember once
twenty-seven years ago walking
the darkened streets
of my home town when up ahead
on Joy Road at the Bluebird of Happiness
I heard over the rumble of my own head
for the first time the high clear trumpet
of Clifford Brown calling us all
to the dance he shared with us
such a short time. My heart quickened
and in my long coat, breathless
and stumbling, I ran
through the swirling snow
to the familiar sequened door
knowing it would open on something new.
-- Philip Levine
We end with a posthumously published poem by Philip Levine, who had vivid memories during his Detroit youth of hanging around The Blue Bird lounge to hear jazz during breaks from his pre-poetry days working in the auto factories. His homage to Clifford Brown comes in the form of a dream in which the trumpeter brings back the memories of jazz-filled nights and the music becomes a source of inspiration for the aspiring writer.
I’ve started with a recording of Brown himself so you can hear his lyrical tone in all its splendor. (Brown was also a renowned bop improvisor.) His playing on this session with strings seems to evoke the mood of Levine’s poem. Then I’ve provided Benny Golson’s recording of his own composition dedicated to the memory of his trumpeter friend, with Art Farmer doing the honors of playing a stand-in for Brownie. Singer Jon Hendricks later provided words to Golson’s tune, so there’s a version by Dinah Washington, here, too. Finally, the recording of the poet himself reciting in a project he recorded shortly before his death with a jazz combo. So we have Dinah singing Hendricks words about remembering to a tune about remembering that inspired a poem about remembering Clifford!
Clifford Brown plays “Easy Living”
Art Farmer plays “I Remember Clifford” with composer Benny Golson’s Jazztett
Dinah Washington sings “I Remember Clifford” with lyrics by Jon Hendricks
Phil Levine reads his poem with Benjamin Boone’s band featuring Tom Harrell on trumpet
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
a creek-washed stone
with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.
The poet reads the poem:
Last week, we read a poem from late in the career of an octogenarian looking back on his youth. This week, we examine a poem from the first flush of his career by an author entering his tenth decade. Snyder turned ninety this May. “Riprap” is the culminating poem from the book of the same name, his first collection, published in 1959. To read the poem in context, let’s look at an account of Gary Snyder’s career, and what pathways in his early life led him to the mountain path where the riprap was laid.
Gary Snyder in 2011
Reviewing a key work of the poet’s ecological essay writing in 1991, critic Bill McKibbon gave an excellent summary of Snyder’s biography and reputation: “His publisher claims that Snyder is a ‘counterculture hero,’ and in a way this description is accurate. The model for Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, Snyder read his poem ‘A Berry Feast’ at San Francisco’s Six Gallery the night that Allan Ginsberg first read ‘Howl,’ an event that is often said to have launched the Beat movement. Snyder soon after left for Japan, where he spent much of the Sixties meditating in a Zen monastery. He returned to San Francisco in time to act as host, with Ginsberg, of 1967’s First Great Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park… the theme that unites Snyder’s odd life [is] his love for and understanding of the mountains, woods, and native peoples of the northern half of the Pacific Coast. Born in 1930, he grew up on a farm near Puget Sound, and for the last twenty years he has lived in a house he built for himself on the western slope of the northern Sierra Nevada… He has, at various times, cut down the trees of this region, climbed its highest peaks, built Park Service trails across its ridges, watched from fire towers for signs of its smoke.”
Atop Mt. Hood in 1947
The education that prepared Snyder for his life as a poet and an environmentalist has come, as I say, through many trails. From an early age he was a voracious reader; an accident laid him up in bed for months when he was seven and he’s said that’s when he got the habit. (For an idea of his range of reading see this recent “By the Book” interview from the New York Times.) But he was also a dedicated explorer of the woods and mountains, a seasoned climber as a teenager, working summer with the manual laborers in the forestry service. He also spent summers as a cook on steamer ships, seeing the life in various ports. A scholarship to Reed College in Portland gave him a dual degree in anthropology and literature, and led him to study the local Native American people.
Practicing Japanese tea ceremony at Berkeley, 1956
His discovery of ancient Asian culture led him to abandon a graduate program in anthropology at the University of Indiana, and he began a course of studies in Chinese and Japanese art, language, philosophy, and religion at Berkeley, all the while still returning to jobs in the Northwest forests and mountains. A few years later he travelled to Japan and apprenticed himself to a Zen Buddhist abbot, going as far as the last step of registering officially as a Zen monk, when he returned to America to weave together his knowledge of myth, language, native and foreign cultures with the practical experience of life on the trail and on shipboard for his first collection of poems.
“Riprap” is the term for the craft of laying stones together to form a viable mountain trail, and it’s one of the many skills Snyder acquired in his forestry apprenticeship. In the epigraph for the book on the first page he defines the term in a way that resembles Webster’s dictionary if it were written in haiku:
riprap :a cobble of stone laid on steep,
slick rock to make a trail for horses
in the mountains
In his next volume, a year later, Myths and Texts, he makes his metaphorical connection more explicit, calling poetry "a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics." So, Riprap the book is a cobble of the different elements of his life so far, and “Riprap” the poem is his ars poetica, his summary of what he has learned and come to believe about the purpose of poetry.
[Insert 1958.jpg with caption:] Snyder in San Francisco just before Riprap’s publication
The poem begins in the imperative mood, its first statement a command to the reader, or a reminder to himself, that a poem is like the placing of stones to form a pathway. The poem ends with a statement of the mutability of the world, “all change,” but also with a quietly confident sense that the poem itself is a kind of permanent momentary fixing of the world in place. As the poem develops, you can see the pathway in many ways: as a communication between writer and reader, as dialogue within the self to the self, and also as a juxtaposition of opposites reconciled not by philosophy or logic, but by intuition and imagination. Some of those opposites are:
- the universe and the individual—Snyder’s personal experience that’s brought him to this point in his life and the essential truths of the cosmos he is sensing
- the man-made and the natural—a trail through the mountain made by a person designing a path made of chunks of that mountain
- the solid and the immaterial—an attempt to reconcile the age-old mind/body duality
- the microcosm and macrocosm—seeing simultaneously the interconnectedness of a rock to a mountain to the earth to the planets to the stars, the universe like an infinitely expanding riprap of matter held together in the contemplation of the poet’s imagination
- space and time
OK, so now perhaps my attempts to explain the poem will lead me to over-propose its meanings and slip on the metaphysics of the trail for which “Riprap” is meant to provide sure footing. Let me make just a few more observations about matters of craft that engage me and impress me in the work. I like the way the typography, the spacing on the page of the alternating lines, echoes the interleaving of rocks in a riprap trail. I like the elegant metaphor contained in the line “Cobble of milky way.” The “way” in our name for the mass of stars that gives our galaxy its name means, of course, “path” or “road,” and Snyder is seeing the illumination of the night sky as an overhead counterpoint to the cobble that he has lain beneath him.
The game of Go
And the comparison of the stony path and a poem to the ancient Asian game of Go is richly suggestive. Go involves the strategic placing of smooth spheroidal stones on flat board surrounding the most space or territory possible. In the poem the game of Go becomes three-dimensional because of the ascending or descending of the mountain, and the different dimensions of the rocks revolving in the heavens, the planets and the stars. Add the fourth dimension of time and the experience of life, and poetry, becomes fuller.
Reading and re-reading “Riprap” makes my imagination feel to me like that riderless pony finding its sure-footed way along the trail, guided by Snyder, but given the possibilities to range freely.
To find more about the remarkable life of Gary Snyder, and to read a selection of his poems, go to the Poetry Foundation here. To read Dana Goodyear’s New Yorker profile of the poet you can click here. To read the legendary poem that many remembered from the Gallery Six reading in San Francisco all those years ago, click here for “A Berry Feast.”
Snyder is an excellent public reader of his own works. Here he is reading “Hay for the Horses.”
You can also watch his complete ninety-minute reading celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book Riprap:
And finally here is the trailer for the documentary based on his book of ecology essays The Practice of the Wild. The film is available for rental on Amazon.
Abandoned Ford factory photographed by Andrew Moore
The Chevy stamping plant
commandeered by clans
of enormous rats so skilled
in their pursuit of life
they devoured intricate
machine parts believed
inedible. Five nights
a week you lived there—
this was in ’46—; and when
a long awaited spring
arrived nothing changed.
From heaven you could have
looked down on rows
of parked Chevys dozing
toward afternoon, you could
have imagined trees
growing in their stead,
elms—thousands of them—
their sticky leaves budding
out as they once did outside
the bedroom window.
You could have conjured
a pale climbing rose that
gathered dust, glass,
the stains of melted snow,
to transform into blood-
tipped thorns, for thorns
too need to live. Not far off,
you told yourself, you could
hear the music of eternity.
More likely it was your own
breathing, new to the job,
or if not then the constant
rise and descent of the presses,
steadier than the beating
of your heart. The presses,
too, had their assignments,
to reform scraps of old toys,
abandoned stoves, yellow
school buses, armies of picks
and shovels, their handles
stained with our fathers’ lives.
That world stamped into
separate but equal steel
leaves we called springs,
springs for the generations
of Chevy cars and trucks not
yet dreamed of. The factory
is gone, the machines with it,
the night workers, you, me,
even the rats. All that’s left
are these few unread words
without rhythm or breath
fading before your eyes.
Levine in 2010 when he was US Poet Laureate
This is a Labor Day poem, because it’s about automobile factory labor, and it’s also what critics like to call a “late work.” That is, it’s a piece by the artist that comes in the end of a career, but also a work that looks back on life and sums up a career from its twilight. The term here applies both as in classical music (as in a high opus number, or work) and as a late poem about the night shift, about last thoughts on paper. In fact, it comes from a posthumous collection of Phil Levine’s poems, edited by colleague and friend Edward Hirsch, and entitled by him Last Shift.
To be sure, it is a memory poem of old age looking back on youth, a man in his eighties remembering his first months on a job at age eighteen, in the first flush of hopes and dreams. The poem’s use of the second person pronoun, “you,” seems to create a dialogue between the poet now and who he was then, experience addressing innocence. So many details in the poem are rooted in the specific details of that long-gone moment that it’s worth looking for a moment at the real-life circumstances of Levine’s biography.
Philip Levine in 1950
Before leaving his native Detroit, Levine had several jobs of manual labor, including work at the Ford River Rouge plant. In 1946 he was working for the Chevrolet Gear and Axle, mostly on the night shift at an exhausting, dangerous, and back-breaking task moving huge sheets of molten metal with big tongs from where they had been heated over to the presses that would stamp them into specific parts. He tells a humorous story in the video below in which he realizes he and the others are clueless about what particular parts they’re making. The workers were too busy wrestling the metal across the factory floor and keeping themselves from serious burns to know.
But later in the poem he indicates he knew one of the products of the gear and axle factory—leaf springs. These were layered metal springs (as opposed to the coiled variety) that were used as the suspension for trucks and cars. As you can see from the illustrations, the layers of these springs DO resemble the foliation of tree leaves.
The poet recalls all the scrap metal that went into the molten processing, and the objects he chooses trace their own path through a human life, from toys to school buses to the handles of tools stained with fathers’ toil (by sweat, blood, and tears, perhaps?) In 1946, just as the post-war boom was making it possible for more and more Americans to acquire wheels, this young man was part of a machine that melted down old dreams and repurposed and fashioned them into springs, the supports, for new dreams of prosperity.
In his youthful vigor, the rhythm of the machinery seems to echo his own breath and heartbeat, a rhythm that counts out time, yet points to an eternity outside it. As the many poems Levine crafted about Detroit factories demonstrated, these rhythms instead tended to grind down those who tended the machines. Yet his imagination embraces other possibilities for his workers. As poet and critic Laverne Frith has noticed, in Levine’s poetry the “mechanized efficiency that has become the first principle of the assembly-line ethic is often undermined—if not sabotaged—in these poems by the lushly destructive and rank disorderliness of the life-force.”
A leaf spring in place
In “Leaves” the life force is represented by organic symbols bursting through the mechanical. The products of the factory, the Chevies lining the street, are replaced magically by living things in the young man’s dreams, dreams he has in the daytime because his night work reverses a usual sleep cycle. In the cars’ stead are thousands of elms, trees in Classical mythology associated with dreams and oracles, whose sticky leaves grow just outside his bedroom window. We might remember here, too, that when Orpheus exiled himself to a shadeless expanse after losing Eurydice for the second time, his songs of grief caused many trees, including elms to come and form a protective grove around him. The poet’s consolation was the result of nature’s empathy.
Then there’s the rose ascending from the industrial waste, transforming the inhospitable harshness of the urban cityscape into something mysterious and wonderful. Levine has been compared so many times to Walt Whitman in his celebration of the American worker, that it’s good to remember there are extra ingredients in his vision. James Marcus tries to say as much in observing, “Over the last four decades, Philip Levine has earned a reputation as America's consummate blue-collar bard--a kind of postindustrial Walt Whitman, albeit one with a taste for surrealism and bebop.” You can read some excellent jazz poems by Levine, but you can also find his enthusiasm for Symbolists and Surrealists. Those schools of poetry tended to take imagery from classical, medieval, and Romantic traditions and recontextualize them in ambiguous ways for a modernist sensibility. So I take it Levine has melted down the detritus of abandoned Detroit factories and stamped it anew into some mysterious symbol of beauty and love.
Birches growing from books in Andrew Moore’s collection Detroit Dissasembled
A few years before the time this poem was written (it was published in the month of his death, February 2015), Levine wrote an essay for a book of photographs by Andrew Moore. The subject of each photograph was an abandoned and decaying edifice in Detroit. Some photos show the interiors of automotive factories. Others show derelict school buildings, deserted hotel lobbies, or the gaping interiors of old movie palaces. Levine’s imagination was fired by them in ways that I think illuminate “Leaves.” Listen to what he has to say:
“I learned recently that after the fire of 1805, Detroit adopted the motto Speramus Meliora; Resurgat Cineribus: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.” I discovered that in a statement by the photographer Andrew Moore; in the same statement he described a school warehouse the roof of which had collapsed, allowing a grove of birch trees to sprout from “a dense matting of decayed and burned books.” Everything we Detroiters created self-destructs while the trees—rising from “richly rotting words”—head straight skyward. I like to imagine the delicate leaves of those birch trees, each one bearing a poem to the heavens, an original poem, wise and stoic, from a sensibility that has seen it all. The poems would have to be brief and precise—you can’t get that much on a leaf—but they would also have to say perfectly all they’ve learned.”
Chevrolet Axle and Gear, Detroit 1946
Trees sprouting from dense decay, leaves with poems on them. I read this and think, yes, he is an heir to Whitman in two other ways. First of all, Whitman’s life work was all the poems he could add in each successive edition to a volume he edited on his deathbed for the last time called Leaves of Grass. Walt was alive to the pun on leaves as plant and leaves as pages, and Phil Levine echoes that in his essay and in “Leaves.” Then, too, he is the poet of elegy and memorializing, as Whitman was in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” Says Edward Hirsch in his introduction to that last collection, Levine “was a poet of the night shift, a late, ironic Whitman of our industrial heartland, and his life’s work is a long assault on isolation, an ongoing struggle against the enclosures of suffering. Looking back, I would say that his poetry began in rage, ripened toward elegy, and culminated in celebration.”
Here’s the poet who can find vitality in rats consuming the factory, a rose blooming in a young man’s dream preserved on the pages of an old man’s memory. In Levine’s last poems he leaves us, the generations of men and women who have succeeded the generations of Chevrolets, with his last leaves.
Here is an interview from PBS in honor of Levine being named Poet Laureate if the United States. It features Andrew Moore’s photographs, and Levine reading poems and recounting stories from his factory days.
As usual, you can find an excellent biography and a large selection of poems by the author at the Poetry Foundation by clicking here.
Mr. Moto’s Confession
The famous Tokyo detective looked as though he’d taken a shower
in his linen suit and then slept in it.
He mopped his shiny forehead with a handkerchief.
“Pascal was right,” he said, his tenor slightly nasal.
“Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to
another form of madness. What’s more,” he added, the cat
eyeing the canary, “contradiction is not a sign of falsity,
nor is the want of contraction a sign of truth—Pascal again.”
He took out his fountain pen. I saw my chance.
“Mr. Moto,” I asked, “should I believe all those stories
I’ve heard about you?” “Please do not,” he murmured. “I do not.”
He was writing something on a cocktail napkin.
“In fact,” he said, his pen continuing to move, “my real name is
Lazlo Lowenstein. I was born in Hungary, I drove myself crazy
as an actor in Zurich and Berlin, and now that I live in Hollywood
I have bad dreams. Last night one of them told me
I’ll end up buried alive in a tale by Edgar Allan Poe.”
He coughed politely, capped his pen, and getting to his feet,
handed me the flimsy patch of paper. “An ancient Japanese
poetic form,” he said. Even as I stared at it
the little cairn of characters, each a tiny, exotic bird cage
with its doors open, blurred, melted, and reformed as if rising
to the surface of a well, where these words trembled
but stayed clear enough to read: As evening nears, how clearly
a dog’s bark carries over the water.
A mysterious poem, if that isn’t redundant. After all, poetry by its nature is more mysterious than ordinary speech, even if some poets shape it out of the most common words. This one is like a fever dream from some film noir crossed with a talk show interview. It’s also shot through with philosophical aphorisms and it ends with a haiku. The poem’s author has said, “Dreaming is after all a kind of thinking” and claims his poems are often dreamlike. He’s also said, “I think my best poems tend to be ones I can’t fully understand. If I feel I ‘understand’ a poem I’ve written, then I suspect there’s something wrong with it.” So while what follows is my attempt to throw some light in the poem’s shadows by providing the context for its allusions, ultimately some of its mystery should remain.
Who is Mr. Moto and what does he have to confess? Mr. Moto was a Japanese secret agent in a series of novels by J. P. Marquand written to order when Earl Derr Biggs, creator of the popular Chinese detective Charlie Chan died, and the Saturday Evening Post sought to capitalize on the resultant gap in Asian sleuths. Moto in the novels may partially fit the outdated stereotype of the “inscrutable Oriental,” but Marquand makes him educated, perceptive, and resourceful, and an undercover spy had, after all, better be difficult to scrutinize. In the popular B picture series of films (eight of them in three years between 1937 and 1939!), Moto is changed to an operative for the International Police, or Interpol. He does often wear white linen and he does often quote aphorisms (though, not to my knowledge, Pascal’s Pensees). As with the popular Charlie Chan movie series, and keeping with the unenlightened practice of the times in Hollywood, the lead who was cast in the part was not an Asian. He was Peter Lorre.
Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto. Note white linen suit.
So why does Mr. Moto confess that he is Lazlo Lowenstein? Is this one of the wily ruses of an undercover international cop? In fact, Lorre, who had recently come to Hollywood from Europe with a strong reputation as a gifted actor, was born with that alliterative name in Hungary in 1904. By his early twenties he had taken a stage name and was building a reputation in Vienna, Zurich, and Berlin as a versatile actor in farce, satire, and classical and contemporary tragedy. In play after play, in raves or pans, the critics singled him out as a unique and riveting performer. It may be Jonathan Aaron is thinking about his busy schedule when he says he drove himself crazy; Lorre was in such great demand that he often acted in two productions a day.
Lorre in Bertolt Brecht’s Man Is Man, Berlin 1931
Once when Brecht revived a play, he had Lorre’s character killed off in the second act so the actor could rush to another theater to play a featured role, then rush back to Brecht’s play in which the third act revealed he was really alive! Lorre played in musical comedy at night while acting by day at the studio for Fritz Lang’s film masterpiece M. In that movie he was the serial killer who has an intense and moving speech in the climax beseeching his captors to understand he is mentally ill. It’s a magnificent performance and one for which he had to drive himself crazy; he collapsed after the director called “cut.” (You can watch the scene here.)
In Fritz Lang’s M (1931)
Or perhaps the madness Mr. Moto is referring to is the addiction Lorre picked up in Berlin after a doctor prescribed morphine for an injury. Although he tried the cure many times, he was back on the drug while playing in the Moto series in his new Hollywood home. For a time, the movies required him to do stunts that aggravated his pain. When Lorre told a friend how much he loathed making the formulaic films, the friend asked why he didn’t quit them. “I need the money for my habit,” he explained. Can’t you go into rehabilitation? the friend asked sympathetically. “I need the morphine to kill the pain of such wretched movies,” Lorre replied with gallows humor. (It’s a kind of poorer cousin to the philosophical maxim of Pascal about madness, tragedy replayed as farce.)
In The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934)
While most of these biographical facts are not made explicit in the poem, they do float in the background if you’re a cinephile in the know. And you’ll also remember that for a time after he shed Moto’s persona, Peter Lorre had a wonderful run as a character actor in big studio productions. His most memorable turn is as Joel Cairo, the punctilious, polite, and potentially lethal stranger who amuses and irritates Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. A year later he would return with Bogart as the memorable shady and unctuous grifter Ugarte in Casablanca, where he had the memorable line, “You know, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.”
As Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)
This satisfying run of parts did not last long. Hollywood didn’t see his unusual eyes, exotic suavity, and potential insanity as an asset as Brecht, Reinhardt, Hitchcock, and John Huston had. He soon became typecast as leering heavies, comic baddies, and chubby weirdos. By the end of his career he was back in low budget films again, working for Roger Corman in cheapie horror films which garbled Poe’s famous stories.
In Tales of Terror, he has the lead in a chapter conflating “The Cask of Amontillado” with “The Black Cat,” which at least gives him a chance to indulge in some mordant banter as he walls up Vincent Price. I take it Jonathan Aaron has not had his Mr. Moto misremember this garbled plot—Moto realizes Lorre has been trapped in another typecast series, buried alive by an actor’s need to keep performing. “We get paid,” Lorre often reminded people, “to pull faces.”
Walling up Vincent Price in Roger Corman film, 1962
Yet after this moment in the poem, the rumpled and sweating detective escapes his entombment and the prying of his interlocutor with a suave exit strategy. He leaves him a poem on the napkin of a table in this dream nightclub of the mind. The Hungarian boy trapped inside the international European star trapped inside the fake Japanese detective makes a gesture of genuine Japanese culture.
Calligraphic print of classic haiku by Basho in Japanese.
We might expect the ink of an old style fountain pen to bleed on a napkin, but the Japanese characters, resembling a cairn, character stacked carefully on character, dissolve and reform in English so the poem can finally be read. (See the shape of the calligraphy above. The Basho haiku translates as, “The old pond/ Frog jumps in/ The sound of water.”) A cairn is a small monument of stones used to mark the way on a trail, or for aesthetic and meditative purposes in Zen practice, often accompanied by prayer flags meant to spread blessings. Moto bestows an ambiguous gift. He leaves his interviewer with another mystery, for haiku never explicitly state a meaning or feeling, but rather point the reader toward a truth emerging, resurfacing, from a juxtaposition of and contradiction between two images, two states of mind.
As darkness increases, clarity is achieved across a gap, sound carrying across the depths of water, and meaning becomes not explicit, but sharper somehow. Or perhaps you have another interpretation of the concluding lines. What’s your solution to the mystery? I still maintain the haiku is, like the false falcon in Bogie and Peter’s movie, “the stuff that dreams are made of.”
Zen cairn with prayer flags.
Painting by Carducius Plantagenet Ream
When life gives you lemons, go pick some blackberries.
Last week I shared one of my favorite odes by Neruda, “Ode to a Lemon,” and when I was writing, it occurred to me I knew quite a few poems about blackberries. I first noted a poetic preoccupation with this specific fruit a dozen or so years ago. First Seamus Heaney’s, and then Galway Kinnell’s blackberry poems showed up on the AP exam essay portion, where students must read a poem cold and write a three-page explication. That set my antennae twitching and over the years I gathered the poems up until I had canfuls. This week, I present seven of them for a late summer snack. Instead of presenting a detailed exegesis, I’ll just make a few observations.
Several properties of blackberries seem to draw the poets to write about them. There’s the taste, both sweet and somewhat tart, with a core that sometimes adds a bitter note to the palate. The physical sensation lends itself to metaphors of mixed emotions of joy and melancholy, celebration and regret, longing and guilt. There’s the foray out into nature that poets enjoy so much as a theme and a setting—blackberry picking takes the writer into the fields, down a deserted lane, on a temporary holiday from domestic and social responsibilities, like a miniature eclogue, a contracted pastoral. The wildness of the berry makes nature seem generous and bountiful, like an Eden returned, but the temporary garden usually ejects the would-be pre-lapsarian (foison turning to poison).
And there is, too, the season. Here in South Jersey, blackberries grow all summer, but my experience with roadside stands is that from late July until early September, they become larger and sweeter. The end of summer is a transitional moment, suitable to meditations on the ephemeral nature of existence—most of the blackberry poems evoke the same feeling as Frost’s “Oven Bird” sonnet, in which the bird and poet try to decide “what to make of a diminished thing.” (This is especially clear in “The Lane” by Frost’s friend and admirer Edward Thomas, set in the very last days of picking.)
Somehow, each of these poets imagines the berry linked to the poet’s enterprise. The juice is ink, or the harvest becomes a yield of ripe and delicious words, bursting on the tongue. The experience of foraging and gorging may lead to truth of some kind. A Eucharistic melding of body and spirit, word made fruit, juice as precious blood, is accompanied with the inevitable thorns of the bramble. In Koumenyaaka’s poem, the solitary child, enriching himself in his small way with the fruit he’ll sell, returns from the lovely world of birds and frogs to cross the limbo back into reality where he confronts the smirk of racism. Heaney’s innocent always hopes against hope that blackberries won’t rot, but knows the truth in his soul.
But Mary Oliver’s speaker gathers more than tasty fruit on her August expedition: when nightfall comes she keeps the taste of what her body reveled in, her tongue having a memory that strengthens and consoles her into sleep. Richard Wilbur distracts himself from the uncertainty of what waits at old age’s end by returning to the moment as it is now, and the consolation of the cycle’s return in the company of his grandchild.
Whatever the technical and spiritual achievements of each poet in my gathering here, the most moving moment of truth for me is Edward Thomas’s poem. It’s said that Frost’s road not taken was a memory of his walks with this poet turned into his most famous poem. Thomas had written this epiphany of the moment outside time in December looking back on his last summer walk with his wife. He sent it to her weeks before his winter death in the Great War so that to my mind the swaying of the bluebells among the bramble and gorse sounds like a tolling for his particular journey’s end. But that memory of the lane now was inscribed for her in time, and for us who read it now.
Painting by Raphaelle Peale
By the way, the root of the word anthology comes from the Greek word for a collection of flowers. What’s the right word for a collection of fruits? In any case, enjoy this pomonology, and have some blackberries, before it’s too late.
Blackberries Are Back
Blackberries are back. They cling near
little streams. Their eyes, bright
make tunnels through the vines.
They see their own thorns in the sky,
and the print of leaves.
At night they hide inside the wind,
ready to try the outdoors on.
They swing for distance, root for
fidelity. The truth is your only ransom
once they touch your tongue.
for Philip Hobsbaum
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.
-- Galway Kinnell
They left my hands like a printer's
Or thief's before a police blotter
& pulled me into early morning's
Terrestrial sweetness, so thick
The damp ground was consecrated
Where they fell among a garland of thorns.
Although I could smell old lime-covered
History, at ten I'd still hold out my hands
& berries fell into them. Eating from one
& filling a half gallon with the other,
I ate the mythology & dreamt
Of pies & cobbler, almost
Needful as forgiveness. My bird dog Spot
Eyed blue jays & thrashers. The mud frogs
In rich blackness, hid from daylight.
An hour later, beside City Limits Road
I balanced a gleaming can in each hand,
Limboed between worlds, repeating one dollar.
The big blue car made me sweat.
Wintertime crawled out of the windows.
When I leaned closer I saw the boy
& girl my age, in the wide back seat
Smirking, & it was then I remembered my fingers
Burning with thorns among berries too ripe to touch.
Blackberries for Amelia
Fringing the woods, the stone walls, and the lanes,
Old thickets everywhere have come alive,
Their new leaves reaching out in fans of five
From tangles overarched by this year’s canes.
They have their flowers too, it being June,
And here or there in brambled dark-and-light
Are small, five-petaled blooms of chalky white,
As random-clustered and as loosely strewn
As the far stars, of which we now are told
That ever faster do they bolt away,
And that a night may come in which, some say,
We shall have only blackness to behold.
I have no time for any change so great,
But I shall see the August weather spur
Berries to ripen where the flowers were–
Dark berries, savage-sweet and worth the wait–
And there will come the moment to be quick
And save some from the birds, and I shall need
Two pails, old clothes in which to stain and bleed,
And a grandchild to talk with while we pick.
When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend
all day among the high
my ripped arms, thinking
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among
the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.
Some day, I think, there will be people enough
In Froxfield to pick all the blackberries
Out of the hedges of Green Lane, the straight
Broad lane where now September hides herself
In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse.
Today, where yesterday a hundred sheep
Were nibbling, halcyon bells shake to the sway
Of waters that no vessel ever sailed ...
It is a kind of spring: the chaffinch tries
His song. For heat it is like summer too.
This might be winter’s quiet. While the glint
Of hollies dark in the swollen hedges lasts—
One mile—and those bells ring, little I know
Or heed if time be still the same, until
The lane ends and once more all is the same.
Painting by Claude Monet
Ode to the Lemon
by the moonlight,
from an aroma of exasperated
steeped in fragrance,
drifted from the lemon tree,
and from its planetarium
lemons descended to the earth.
the markets glowed
with light, with
of a miracle,
from the hemispheres
of a star,
the most intense liqueur
born of the cool, fresh
of its fragrant house,
its acid, secret symmetry.
sliced a small
in the lemon,
the concealed apse, opened,
revealed acid stained glass,
So, when you hold
of a cut lemon
above your plate,
a universe of gold,
a fragrant nipple
of the earth’s breast,
a ray of light that was made fruit,
the minute fire of a planet.
--Pablo Neruda, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
If ever a poem was devoted to the central technique or trope of microcosm, this Neruda ode certainly is. The lemon in the branches seems like a star in a planetarium at the poem’s beginning, and by the poem’s end it contains in miniature a larger world (“the minute fire of a planet”). Each lemon reflects the larger world from which it sprang, and the universe itself is conceived us as a rounded, full, lustrous, fruit full of life, amazement, and strife combined with joy (“exasperated love”).
Just as the medieval cathedral was conceived as grand-scaled house of worship whose design echoed that of creator’s design, with the vaulting ceiling paralleling the firmament of Genesis, so the lemon is revealed in its humble way to be a model of both church architect and cosmos.
In the lemon the four traditional elements that make up the physical universe meet—the fruit that springs forth as the earth’s breast, the precious “intense liqueur/ of nature”, the scent of the lemon blossom in the air, the fire of stars and planets throughout the solar system.
Painting by Vincent van Gogh
It’s as if Neruda’s paean to the golden fruit reconciles the archaic and the modern with the technology of modern science creating a model of space, the planetarium, combined with the medieval faith in miracles. In fact the poem provides many variations on Christian mythology, with the ideal of “yellowness” descending to the earth and becoming embodied in the humble unrefined gold of the everyday market place, a “ray of light made fruit,” the fruit of the womb of our planet (with the Madonna of medieval paintings echoed in the nourishing breast which the shape of the fruit recalls). There’s a kind of eucharistic miracle in the goblet of gold (the sliced lemon becoming both vessel and the juice it contains).
Painting by Georges Braque
Midway through his prolific career, Neruda began to compose what he called Odas elementales, or elemental odes. He took the classical form from the Greek Pindar and the Latin Horace, from the Romantics Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, and transformed it in his own imagination. The ode began as a long-form poem of praise, either on a public occasion or for a private meditation. It began with rather complex stanzaic and metrical rules, and was refined to simpler and more congenial rhyme and rhythm by the English Romantics (usually with an echo of Shakespeare and Milton).
But Neruda’s genius was to concentrate on objects of the everyday, and to arrange his free verse not in the horizontal parade across the page as the grand-daddy of free verse, Walt Whitman, had, but rather to let the praise tumble down the left-hand margin in trickle, or rill, or torrent of joy, with, and exasperation, as he saw fit. (One of the 225 odes is dedicated to Walt.)
Elementales is often translated to mean “common” or “ordinary,” and it certainly does have that meaning. But it also means “essential” and “basic” as in those four elements mentioned above, the building blocks of our universe. It’s as if by taking time to pen these odes in addition to the sonnets, and larger works like The Stones of Machu Picchu and Canto General, he was rebuilding the world we all see word by word.
If you want to read them all, I can enthusiastically recommend All the Odes, edited by Ilan Stavans, with carefully selected versions by various translators in a handy parallel text on facing pages so you can peruse the Spanish originals. (Want to read this ode about the lemon in Spanish? Click here.) If you need any more persuading about that purchase, check out this enthusiastic overview by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Timpane.
Painting by Paul Cezanne
Diplomat, freedom fighter, essayist, exile, Nobel Laureate, Neruda led a life packed with events, and was able to compose a body of poetry that extends past three thousand pages. Their emotions and themes range from romance, eroticism, political passion, philosophical speculation, to just plain fun. To read more about the remarkable life of Pablo Neruda, go to the Poetry Foundation’s biography page, where you can also find links to many of his best poems. It’s harder to find the odes in good online versions, but I’ve hunted down a few of my favorite and listed the links below. Perhaps I need to get cracking on an “Ode to the Hypertext Link.”
Pablo Neruda and friend
Quilt by Phyllis Stephens
The girls turning double-dutch
bob & weave like boxers pulling
punches, shadowing each other,
sparring across the slack cord
casting parabolas in the air. They
whip quick as an infant’s pulse
and the jumper, before she
enters the winking, nods in time
as if she has a notion to share,
waiting her chance to speak. But she’s
anticipating the upbeat
like a bandleader counting off
the tune they are about to swing into.
The jumper stair-steps into mid-air
as if she’s jumping rope in low-gravity,
training for a lunar mission. Airborne a moment
long enough to fit a second thought in,
she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish
as she flutter-floats into motion
like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos
thumbed alive. Once inside,
the bells tied to her shoestrings rouse the gods
who’ve lain in the dust since the Dutch
acquired Manhattan. How she dances
patterns like a dust-heavy bee retracing
its travels in scale before the hive. How
the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope
slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.
Her misted skin arranges the light
with each adjustment and flex. Now heather-
hued, now sheen, light listing on the fulcrum
of a wrist and the bare jutted joints of elbow
and knee, and the faceted surfaces of muscle,
surfaces fracturing and reforming
like a sun-tickled sleeve of running water.
She makes jewelry of herself and garlands
the ground with shadows.
Gregory Pardlo’s aim is the game. In this poem he strives to describe the sights and sounds, and to capture the feel, of a most esoteric and challenging level of child’s play.
Before we look more closely at the poem itself, let’s remind ourselves what the game of Double Dutch does look and sound like. It’s thought that ancient Egyptian and Chinese hemp spinners, the craftsmen who made ropes, originated various rope skipping games. Although I’ve never seen any hard evidence to support the idea, the tradition has been that the Dutch brought the two rope form with them to the New World, and the English colonists named the practice after them. Double rope dancing was particularly popular in the streets of Harlem, where in the 1970s NYC Police Detectives David Walker and Ulysses Williams worked with local phys ed teachers to develop it into a competitive sport. (You can read an excellent brief history here at the National Double Dutch League website.)
By 1981, the sport had attracted enough notice to have a documentary funded by the NEA aired on PBS. (What follows is an excerpt, but you can watch the whole half hour documentary here if you like.)
Clip from Pick Up Your Feet: The Double Dutch Show:
As hip-hop spread urban street culture throughout the globe, Double Dutch gained even wider popularity. Punk rock/new wave impresario Malcolm McLaren was knocked out by rappers performing double rope jumping along with break dancing when they toured England. McLaren had managed The Sex Pistols and Bow Wow Wow, and he liked to think of himself as a chap who could spot the Next Big Thing in pop culture. He traveled to New York City to film teams for a video and wrote a musical theme (based on the mbqanga style of South African Soweto rhythms) and a chant to go with it. In his rap, he namechecks many team names including his favorite, The Ebonettes. Whatever you think of a pasty, nerdy Brit rapping and frolicking on the gym floor with these young athletes, his enthusiasm is palpable! The world loved Double Dutch.
(For a reminiscence of the game and early hip hop you can read this Vice report here.)
“Double Dutch” song, official video (1983):
Gregory Pardlo shapes his tribute to the Double Dutch girls with the poet’s inevitable tools, weaving a series of similes and metaphors. First the rope swingers are likened to boxers training (not fighting), pulling punches and moving their hands in the motions of pugilism, testing their agility, not brute force. (A nice touch since boxers also skip rope to get in shape, although usually one rope at a time!) The jumper is compared to a swing band leader in the moments before the number begins, commanding the timing of the musicians. Next the jumper is like the astronaut floating on the moon’s surface from leap to leap. Then the jumper is the flickering presence of an animated flip-book, and further on a pollen-bearing bee making its tiny circles before the hive’s entrance (the momentary hovering repeating its return journey in miniature, as in a map’s scale). The human and the objects swung by other persons together become a “stunning contraption,” like a riverboat. And in the end, in the ultimate moment of transcendence, the jumper is jewel.
Painting by Emile Barnes
The poem is like an Ovidian moment of transformation: the first line’s “turning” refers to the whipping ropes, but also points to metamorphosis. However, it isn’t the gods who effect the transformation (although indeed some gods are roused in the course of the jumping). Rather it is the jumper’s own performance that makes herself into the gem.
Pardlo makes the most of prosodic tricks to cause his verse to transform into the rhythm and shape of whirring ropes and floating girl. There is all that cunning enjambment letting the line turn and lift and drop. There are all those hyphenated word—“stair-step,” “mid-air,” “low-gravity,” etc. Heck, “heather-hued” is a compound, hyphenated word and an enjambment. It’s as if each line is like the “light listing” (that is leaning or glancing off) the surface, and each successive image is like the glinting on the water as it trickles down the sleeve of the page. And how about those internal rhymes (“thought in”/ “caught in” or “waiting/ anticipating” or “inside/tide” or the crisscross of “stair-step/ mid-air”) to weave the poem’s music together like the chiming of bells in the jumper’s shoelaces? They’re evocative of the tricky rhymes girls in the streets of Harlem chant along with jump-rope, or the street poetry that eventually became rap.
I like best the near-rhyme of dust and Dutch which links together a number of strands. The girls’ rhythms wake the dead from the ground—the spirits of the natives who sold Manhattan to the settlers of New Amsterdam who in turn ceded their land to the current inhabitants. (Remember that Haarlem, two a’s, was the name of a Nederlanders’ village settlement up in the countryside of that big island before it became associated with a Renaissance (rebirth) of black culture, and the home of the Apollo Theater, where the first Double Dutch contests were held. Indeed, the jumper’s last action is to decorate the land itself with a garland, like an ancient ritual of dedication. The garland is made of her leaping shadow, as if the shades of the past, present, and future are being brought together in a timeless moment.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Willingboro, NJ, Gregory Pardlo became a surprise Pulitzer winner in 2015, because he was not yet as famous (in the limited sense in which any poets are famous) as some others. As usual, you can read a sampling of his work at the Poetry Foundation website. I particularly like “Raisin,” where he takes his nephew to see a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play starring a current hip hop star and meditates on the different meanings of African-American art for different generations with humor and respect.
Here is the PBS report from the week he won the Pulitzer Prize:
In this clip, he explains his philosophy of poetry to an interviewer:
Here, he reads one of his poems in his Brooklyn neighborhood:
Linocut by Kate Heiss
fluted with gold,
fruit on the sand
marked with a rich grain,
spilled near the shrub-pines
to bleach on the boulders:
your stalk has caught root
among wet pebbles
and drift flung by the sea
and grated shells
and split conch-shells.
fire upon leaf,
what meadow yields
so fragrant a leaf
as your bright leaf?
-- H. D.
H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)
This poem is in the long English tradition of floral verse, stretching from the Renaissance (Robert Herrick and, of course, Shakespeare, for example) through the Romantics (Blake, John Clare, Wordsworth, for example) and American poetry from Emily Dickinson (a veteran gardener and amateur student of botany) to the Modernist movements, of which Hilda Doolittle, who wrote under the name “H. D.,” was a pioneer. I stumbled across the poem on one of those daily poem sites, I can’t now remember which one, and was fascinated. Over the years I’ve returned to it again and again.
Early on I knew I had to do some research. What exactly is a sea poppy?, I needed to know. So I did one of those google expeditions we all indulge in now that we don’t have to yank down the Britannica or phone the New York Public Library’s reference desk. Some people do this to settle bar bets, while others need to explicate poems. Here’s what I now know:
The sea poppy is classified by its scientific name glaucius flavum, according to the modernized version of Linnaean taxonomy. The second part of the binomial tag, the Latin word for yellow, refers to the color of the blossom, which tends from golden yellow to a vermillion tint. The first part refers to the leaves, which the online plant store Xera describes as “wonderful” and “incredibly blue glabrous rubbery foliage” complementing “the glowing flowers.” The Elizabethan writer John Gerard described the leaves as “whitish” in 1597, perhaps because they are shinier and brighter than the more common inland poppy. (I looked in vain in my 1930 edition given to me years ago by friend Leslie Ortiz, but although it’s a beautiful reproduction, it’s abridged—the original is 1700 pages! So..back to the web…)
The chapter “Yellow Horned Flower” by Anne Pratt
I wondered about this range of color in the descriptions of the plant’s leaves, until I read a description from an 1853 book by Anne Pratt, a popular author and illustrator of many volumes on botany, called Wild Flowers. Her comments are under the alternate name in England for the sea poppy, the yellow horned poppy.
“Near to the margin of the sea…no flower is gayer or more frequent there than the Yellow Horned Poppy. Like others of the Poppy tribe, it has crumpled and fragile petals, but so many are the blossoms, that when the wind carries away some, others soon succeed, and adorn the plant with golden beauty for many successive weeks. The foliage has that delicate sea-green tint which the botanist terms glaucous, and from which it derives its scientific name. It is rough with short bristles, and few objects are more beautiful than a large leaf of this plant, glittering at every point with hoar-frost, for it is green even in winter.”
So the golden flowers are underpinned with leaves that are designated by the Latin word for grayish-green which in turn comes from the Greek word that means both “gleaming” and “gray,” a word often used to describe the color of the sea, an element whose shades of color are as changeable as the weather. (In fact, one of the sea gods of Greek mythology was named Glaukos.) Imagine the color of the ocean now grayish-green, then bluish with white glinting highlights and you can see why the botanists celebrate the color that dots the shore all year when the yellow bloom has disappeared.
Author portrait, frontispiece, Gerard’s Herball
There are two more aspects of actual plant we need to understand before we go on to look at H. D.’s literary depiction of the sea poppy. I’ll let John Gerard, Elizabethan author explain. Gerard, like Potts, called it a horned poppy, designating it Papaver cornutum flore luteo, “the horned poppy with flower of yellow-orange color,” (not knowing what Linnaeus would call it a century and a half later). Gerard remarks:
“The stalks be long, round, and brittle. The floures be large and yellow, consisting of foure leaves; which being past, there come long huskes or cods, crooked like an horn or cornet, wherein is conteined small black seede. The roote is great, thicke, scalie, and rough, continuing long.”
The stalks you’ll see in most pictures of sea poppies are spiny and tough, and the roots are thick and tenacious, as they must be to grow on or near the beach. The “horn” in the common British name refers to the prominent seed that resembles the animal appendage, or devices familiar in Gerard’s times, fashioned from it, such as a drinking horn, or a cornet.
Sea poppy with “horn” pod on right
OK, I grant it looks as if I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole on all this online amateur botanical sleuthing, but I’ve taught this poem many times and discovered that I, a nice New Jersey suburban boy, didn’t know enough of the facts of nature to grasp the poem. If we were looking at a Blake or Robbie burns writing about a rose, or Wordsworth recollecting a daffodil in tranquility, or Walt Whitman memorializing Lincoln with a central symbol of a lilac, we all might be on more familiar ground (or soil, but you get the drift). So now, onto the text itself.
H. D.’s poem is in the form of two sentences. Each one is an apostrophe, that is, a rhetorical device in which a poet addresses an absent person, or an object that can’t hear or can’t reply. (Think “Good Night, Moon,” for example.) In the first two stanzas, the poet names the sea poppy with various descriptive tags—call it a metaphorical taxonomy. Past the colon, once the flower has been named and renamed, the poet describes the natural setting in which it grows.
The final stanza is a rhetorical question. Let’s look at each part.
“Amber husk” The yellow seed-pod yielding up the germ scattered in the wind to propagate new plants in the spare and blank environment does indeed resemble a husk. “Husk” in one sense is a common unscientific floral term for the drying pod that opens. It’s also an everyday American word for the casing on the stalk of corn. (It’s called “maize” in Britain, where “corn” means any grain. Hilda Doolittle was born in Bethlehem, PA, and her father had moved her family to Upper Darby when he became head of a planetarium, and the family summered at the Jersey shore. She was an expatriate living in London at the time she wrote the poem. Sea poppies grow on both sides of the Atlantic.)
“fluted with gold” The metaphor here is with design as when something is decorated with a groove, “fluted,” and then gilded on the edges, like a champagne flute or the edges of designs in a medieval manuscript.
“fruit on the sand/ marked with rich grain” The fruit of a sea poppy is its seeds, here being described as bountiful. But “fruit” echoes “fluted,” as does the idea of a grain, or groove. Who hasn’t at some point marked letters or pictures in the sand? Like the metaphor of the marked and decorated manuscript, the decoration of the sand with marks of rich grain may here be a trace of the poet’s own function, contributing to and enriching nature.
“treasure/spilled…to bleach on boulders” This metaphor evokes riches heaved up on shore from shipwrecks, as well as the bones of men lost at sea. I can’t help thinking there is some secularized reference to Christ’s parable of the seeds here, in which some teachings or revelations lodge in the bosom of the hearers while others fall by the wayside and bear no fruit. In the parable, of course, the seed that is cast represents “The Word.” Here, perhaps, the word is the marks on the beach, the language of the poet imitating the flower and blooming to life.
Amber washed up by storm in Suffolk, UK
And of course, one treasure the sea spills on the shore is “amber.” The fossilized remains of ancient tree resin are sometimes dislodged from the ocean floor and washed up on land, where they are gathered as gems. (This was more common in Britain at one time, but not unheard of in America, where, I was pleased to have the internet inform me, deposits of amber were found in tributaries of the Delaware in creeks near Camden, NJ!) “Amber” is also a name for ambergris, a product of whale secretions, which needed to be bleached before it became valuable as perfume and medicine.
Next we see where and how the seeds grow and come to fruition. The hardy plant has caught root in an environment of crushed and split shells, and the stalk has grown up in from the wet pebbles. From more references to fragmented flotsam driven in from the sea, the sea poppy springs up from destruction to life. The shells themselves were once scalloped and fluted, and indeed if you look at the photos and drawings of sea poppies you’ll see the four leaves or petals of the flower are scalloped on the edges and look as if it is an opened or split shell. (Or perhaps a goblet or chalice of gold…? A drinking horn chased with gilt?)
Now comes the question at the end of the poem, in which H. D. compares and contrasts the sea poppy, living on the margin of the ocean in this sparse environment, with its inland cousin, the more famous and plentiful poppy of the meadow. Not surprisingly, the sea poppy wins the contest! The leaves are called fiery and fragrant. The leaves may refer to the petals of gold and vermillion, or to the glinting glaucous sea-reflecting foliage. Is H. D., who was, like her one-time lover Ezra Pound, an avid student of classical Greece, aware that in mythology, amber was thought to be the product of Helios the sun god’s fire touching spray on the waves? Does the fragrance of the leaf owe anything to the perfume of ambergris?
Sea Garden, 1st Edition
And I haven’t even got into the symbolism of poppies in mythology, or the Freudian reading of the poem (H.D. studied with Dr. Sigmund later on), or the echoes of the 1895 poem “America, the Beautiful” by Katherine Lee Bates, including “amber waves of grain,” “fruited plain,” and “sea to shining sea,” or…But, enough, I promise. I hope I have suggested how much rich treasure a few lines of such verse can contain. I’m in awe of H. D.’s craft. Let me just end by telling you a little bit more about this remarkable woman’s life, and provide some links to find out more. “Sea Poppies” is from H. D.’s first poetry collection, “Sea Garden.” You can read the companion flower poems by clicking on each title: “Sea Rose,” “Sea Lily,” “Sea Violet,” and “Sea Iris.”
Reading room of The British Museum
A well brought-up and gifted young woman who dropped out of Bryn Mawr and scandalized her family by following Ezra Pound to London after he had been fired from teaching college. They both lived a bohemian existence in the avant-garde art world just before and during The Great War. They and the members of their circle made great use of the free space in the large reading room of The British Museum. The story of her beginnings as a poet is a wonderful one, and Film critic Sheila O’Malley recounts it:
“Imagism, one of the many opening salvos of Modernism, was a reaction against flowery Victorian-era language, against over-description, against the romanticism of the 19th century. In a lengthy ‘List of Don’ts,’ Pound declared that, to be an Imagist, you must: ‘Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something. Go in fear of abstractions.’ Doolittle, almost on a whim, went ahead and wrote her first three poems… In a now famous story that H.D. tells in her 1958, she showed these poems to Pound while sitting at their regular hangout, the tea room at the British Museum: ‘“But, Dryad, . . . this is poetry.” [Dryad, ancient Greek woodland nymph, was Pound’s nickname for her.] He slashed with a pencil. “Cut this out, shorten this line.” . . . And he scrawled “H.D. Imagiste” at the bottom of the page.’”
You can read the account of her career in film by O’Malley at Film Comment’s website:
She went on to become a soul mate to D. H. Lawrence, the wife of poet Richard Aldington, the partner of photographer Kenneth McPherson, and then partner of his ex-wife Bryher. She was an influential poet, but also a film critic, novelist, memoirist, feminist, Freudian psychologist—one of the 20th century’s most varied and voracious minds with a long, fascinating, scandalous, and entertaining life. I still treasure the rich grains of those early poems the most.
Page from H. D.’s scrapbook showing classic profiles.